Sympathy for Delicious (***½)

Mark Ruffalo makes an impressive debut as a director in the very original and fantastical parable Sympathy for Delicious.  Working off of a fearless if slightly messy script by his longtime friend Christopher Thornton (who also stars), Ruffalo has crafted a movie I’m frankly shocked was able to be made.  It’s tackling a lot of different things all at once, while never staking claim to any one corner that would make it an easier sell (though not as high quality a film).  Any flick involving religion walks a dangerous path, but Ruffalo and Thornton manage to turn out a work that will have appeal to believers and non-believers alike (as one of the latter, it was especially noteworthy for me, as religious preaching is the easiest way to turn me off).  Though it may be a little rough around the edges at times, this is still a strangely beautiful work, and one of the better movies of 2011 and announces Ruffalo as the latest actor with a solid career behind the camera to look forward to in the future.

“Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer (Thornton) is a paralyzed DJ living in a car on Skid Row in Los Angeles.  He’s not interested in anything having to do with the spiritual world; he’s just concerned with getting off the streets (or more specifically, his car that he sleeps in) and getting to spin some records.  The former he gets assistance with from Father Joe (Ruffalo), who tries his best to help Dean.  The latter he gets at clubs late at night.  Two events are about to occur that will forever change Dean forever.  Somehow, he’s developed the ability to heal people (but frustratingly not himself), and Father Joe wants to use that gift to help those who most need it (though he’s not above taking on the occasional wealthy soul who will make a big donation in exchange for Dean’s healing touch).  On the other side, a wannabe rock star named The Stain (Orlando Bloom) that Dean has jammed with sees a moneymaking opportunity in Dean and leads him to the dark side.  Soon, he’s doing faith healing for profit at rock concerts while the band plays.  There’s a battle for Dean going on, both literally and figuratively, and when his powers get him in trouble, Dean has to try and see the error of his ways.  This is pretty much a fairy tale, despite the gritty settings, and it plays as such.  If you choose to see the religious elements of the parable, that’s your choice, but it’s never overt and in your face.

The lead performance by Thornton is charismatic in all the right ways.  Dean is bitter and selfish, but still likable, which is important.  You feel for him, and if Thornton didn’t bring that out, the movie would have been a failure.  The character doesn’t want to truly help anyone but himself, and Thornton plays it as a deep longing instead of as a mean character trait.  It’s a very strong acting job.  In the main supporting role, Ruffalo directs himself as a good man of the cloth who is tempted just like Dean.  Ruffalo keeps the attention off of himself, but it’s a humble role that he easily pulls off.  Their chemistry is excellent, and their climatic scenes together are incredibly powerful.  Bloom gives a Gonzo type performance as the wild rocker that doesn’t always fit the story, but is always entertaining.  There are also good performances to be found elsewhere, namely in Laura Linney chewing the scenery as a seedy agent that sees dollar signs when she sees Dean and Juliette Lewis as the band member that liked Dean for his DJ skills, not his healing.  There’s also a cameo by John Carroll Lynch as a “Faith Healer” and a small but pivotal part for Noah Emmerich as a fellow man in a wheelchair.  How he factors into the story I won’t say, but he’s very good in a small role.  Everyone does their part to make this film as good as it is, and they all deserve applause.

Aside from an over-reliance on handheld shots in the first act, Mark Ruffalo makes almost every directorial decision a good one.  He’s obviously learned a lot from his past directors, and it shows.  There’s passion in his direction, as well as restraint.  There’s a lot of ways to tell this story wrong, and only a few ways to tell it right, but Ruffalo manages to find the right way.  It’s one of the better directorial debuts in recent memory.  Thornton’s script is a deeply personal one, yet it never gets the best of him.  It may pack a bit too much into certain scenes, but the story is fine-tuned enough to work.  They’ve created an original premise filled with original characters, and you rarely get that these days.  In particular, their choices in the final act of the film take things in an unexpected direction and elevate the work to that of something special.

Sympathy for Delicious is a lot of things all at once, and it occasionally may seem like a mess, but it’s a beautiful work of art that should connect deeply with those who see it.  I was shocked I liked it as much as I did, and that’s a testament to the talent of Ruffalo and Thornton.  This is a film worth seeking out, as I doubt you’ll see anything else like it this year (or frankly, in other years to come as well).

It’s one of the 5 best movies I’ve seen so far this year, and the flick is good enough to already be in my mind as a contender for my year end Top 10 list.  Take my advice and see this piece of cinematic art…you’ll be glad you did.